politics of the hap

Mad, Black and Swan
January 30, 2011, 4:41 pm
Filed under: Subjectivities | Tags: , , ,

Black Swan is on the precipice of yet more accolades at this years Oscar ceremony. It is a film that has been endowed with overwhelming praise and adulation. However I would like to give voice to the substantial criticisms of Black Swan. In particular, it is the representation of women that has worryingly passed without comment and which I would like to highlight. I feel deeply concerned at the lack of acknowledgment of the film’s irresponsible and offensive representation of the four classic female stereotypes: the virgin, the whore, the mother and the mad woman.

So first any good points? The costumes and make-up were very pretty. The cinematography had promise. The atmosphere of the film was certainly suffocating and full of the intended tension. Yet this same atmosphere was sustained for the whole film: its ubiquity becoming boring quite rapidly. Moreover it seemed to heighten the banality of already banal scenes where the characters exchanged mundane, listless dialogue. The thin plot that one could distinguish was predictable and boring. To create the required suspense every tired old technique of naff horror movies was employed: dead looking people appeared in a flash, lights turned off for no reason, pictures on a wall started talking. The desire to produce an excess of madness on the contrary came across as emotionless, somehow greatly lacking in humanity.

So no, not many good points.

The film revolves around the relationship between the three female characters, Nina, Nina’s mother, and Lily, who become Nina’s imaginary rival and imaginary lover. The film also features a fourth female character, an “over the hill” former prima ballerina (played by Winona Ryder) who is forced to resign from the company and subsequently gets run over and ends up with some hideous looking stitches and metal bars in her legs. She also appears (appears because it is unclear whether this is Nina’s twisted imaginary again or not) to stab herself in her face with a nail file while screaming “I’m nothing!” over and over for no apparent cause.

The film is dominated by female characters yet it is important to note the prominent male figure, played by Vincent Cassel. Cassel’s character, Thomas (pronounced in faux french accent) similarly to the female characters, is a one-dimensional caricature. Cassel’s obvious abilities are greatly under used as he parades around as the overly ‘french’ ballet teacher talking crudely about sex and fucking every girl that makes it to the top of company; and consequently fucking them over.

Natalie Portman’s Nina is an obsessively controlled personality that strives only to be perfect. Her dilemma occurs as she cannot ‘let go’ in order to dance the seductive and entrancing Black Swan. Nina is depicted as innocent, but comes across as an ignorant and childish girl, her face permanently transfixed in a look of pathetic vulnerability. It is hard to feel empathy toward Nina’s struggle as she does little to help herself, whimpering at every criticism and falling for Thomas’s every grope.

Nina ‘becomes’ the mad woman yet there is no apparent spiral into madness. Nina is introduced from the beginning of the film as unstable and fragile, staring at herself eerily in the reflection of the underground train.There is no subtly or believability to her self destruction. Her desire to be perfect is an identifiable struggle as is the pressure of striving for high achievements. But the film does not make it clear where these pressures are coming from. Instead they are blamed on Nina herself or, as Nina does, the blame falls on her mother.

Nina’s rage at her mother appears completely unwarranted as Nina’s mother is perhaps the only sympathetic character in the film. She continually supports her daughter, who only pushes her away with contempt and the fear of ever becoming her mother. The father is noticably and unexplainably absent, as are any other family members. The emphasis is thus placed on Nina and her mother’s fraught relationship. Nina’s contempt for her mother comes across as immature and the superficial nature of her character is markedly evident as she huffs that she made it to Black Swan and her mother was only ever a chorus member. It spouts the same well worn mother-daughter competition, where the daughter strives to achieve more than her pitiful mother, and the mother mourns the life she could have had if she hadn’t become a single mother.

In the Black Swan the route to emancipation for Nina is through exploring her sexuality, or being told to go home and touch herself. Obviously this is a new concept to Nina because, as we all know, all hard-working, focussed women are frigid and embarassed about sex. Yet this emancipation turns out to involve soft porn lesbian fantasies, getting drunk and drugged and casual encounters in a grimy club toilet. Nina’s virginal ignorance is contrasted rather simplistically with Lily who exudes her free sexuality by looking like a porn star, eating hamburgers, taking recreational drugs and wearing her hair open. Nina is encouraged to be more like Lily to overcome her passivity by being actively ‘sexual’. Nina’s passivity is exemplified in a disturbing scene where Nina alone in a train carriage is faced with an old man licking his lips at her. Nina stares blankly as the man begins touching his penis and masturbating.

It is hard to know how to respond to this scene. On the one hand we see another example of the men in the film treating her as a sexual object, despite being declared as unfuckable earlier in the film. This scene is perhaps therefore a positive development as we see Nina has now transitioned from simply beautiful and talented to a wank object. The most disconcerting aspect of this scene however is Nina’s lack of reaction to the old man’s conduct. The scene passes without comment which only seems to reinforce its normality.

As Nina taps into her Black Swan sprouting feathers and getting bent legs, she throws her toys into the bin and shouts at her mother and claims she is moving out. This it would seem is Nina’s emancipation, the stuffing of teddies into the trash a symbol of her transition from child to adult. A passing also signaled by her lesbian (fantasy) encounter, being groped by a pervy teacher and seeing dead people in the dark.

In her empowered state Nina becomes a demonic and fearful character, as if possessed. Yet her empowerment is impossible for her to control and the only means to free herself is to kill herself.

The film’s finale only serves to reiterate and reinforce the binaries that have plagued women for centuries.

A woman can either be virginal, whorish, or a daughter but she cannot attempt to be all three. If she does she will only become mad and then kill herself. A woman cannot be ambitious without being unstable, insecure and jealous; a woman cannot be sexual without being a whore; a woman cannot be single without being frigid.

The success and celebration of this film is an offence and insult to the struggle women have endured to deconstruct the binaries that have kept them within a double-bind.  The women depicted are truly one-dimensional; Nina the quintessential virgin, Lily the empowered ‘new feminist’ whore; and Nina’s mother, embodying the limitations women faced in a past generation.

The film’s narrative is predicated on a woman’s self-hated and distrust of other women. The derogatory behaviour of men is accepted passively as the women battle against one another weakening themselves. Indeed in her newly empowered state Nina passionately kisses Thomas, yet disowns her mother and brutally ‘kills’ her female rival.

When the ambitions of a woman extend from one dimension to another madness is the result. But even this madness is one-dimensional. This madness in its exaggeration is presented as pure hysteria, a psychological pathology instead of a radical response, a desire to attack the bounds of the double-bind. This hysteria meets its end in the death of woman, who rather conveniently impales herself at the height of her achievement showing forcefully once again, women can never have it all.

The New Autonomy
January 28, 2011, 12:04 pm
Filed under: Happiness | Tags: , , , ,

When it comes to considering the role of choice in our lives it would seem the supermarket has become a popular, if unoriginal, metaphor. As frustrated trips to the supermarket have taught us, too much choice is bad – it is time-consuming, often bewildering and exhausting. Yet most would agree that to have no choice is worse. We don’t want to just accept whatever we are given, the power and autonomy involved in selecting and making decisions has become a fundamental human right, and justifiably so. Choice, in general is good.

Choice is a word that is now ubiquitous in government policy. Individuals – patients, women, whomever – are granted choice and their ability to choose is paramount. Because when we have choice we have autonomy and thus empowerment, or so the logic goes. As David Cameron has remarked, when people are given more control over their lives, when they are made to feel as if they are the “authors of their own destiny”, their sense of self-worth and well-being increases. But what happens when we prioritise choice? Does it lead to the autonomy we desire?

When it comes to our happiness and making our lives happier, choice is surely crucial. A new initiative called ‘The Happiness Challenge’ which has been featured on BBC Breakfast this past week claims happiness is determined by our own behaviours and attitudes. As the booklet states:

We often think that our circumstances – where we live, what we have, what we earn and so on – have a big effect on how happy we are. However, these things tend to have much less impact than most people expect. Instead, research suggests that a big part of how happy we are is determined by our attitude and choices, rather than our circumstances. So we have an opportunity to make ourselves and others happier by the way we approach our lives and the actions we choose to take.
(The Happiness Challenge produced for BBC Breakfast by Action for Happiness and Mindscape)

Here we can see that our choices – our choice of behaviour and action – determine happiness. Happiness is a choice that we can realise regardless of our circumstances; ‘our circumstances’ presumably referring to material, economic and social circumstances. But how precisely we are to make choices apart from our circumstances is a curious idea. Our choices are always mired in the daily vital realities of living with and amongst human, mortal bodies; of being entrenched in cultural norms and traditions. Even as we may have become untied from traditional roles our choices remain entangled. Freedom from tradition does not mean that we obtain free choice but simply that the choices become different.

Choice becomes problematic when it is disembedded from the social context it belongs, as it presumes choice is available to all people at all times, glossing over in a rather horrific way the inescapably real social inequalities that persist in society. As Annemarie Mol (1) describes, “By making choices, or so the logic of choice claims, we become the masters of our own lives. This promise of mastery however hides what it costs to reshape the world in a way that ‘situations of choice’ are created”. When choice is endowed with the power to transcend categories it neglects the ‘situatedness’ of choice. Further it hides how choice is often an opportunity of privilege.

Being able to make us happy is one of the great explanatory powers that choice has been weighted with. Though of course if choice has the power to bring happiness, wealth and cure cancer, it equally has the power to bring unhappiness, poverty and tumours. Well more or less equally depending on your strength of will. The dark side to the ‘freedom’ of choice is that the individual is burdened with the responsibility of their choices and the blame if they experience failure. And it seems humans do tend to fail quite a bit. So much so that even the government has realized that repeatedly telling the public not to do something; people will continue to do it. Because well people cannot be trusted with their choices. As Mark Williamson from (director of Action for Happiness) has pointed out “we often don’t do the things we ought”. To remedy this dilemma the government has assembled a ‘behavioural insights team’ to uncover the unconscious drives that inform our decisions and use incentives to ‘nudge’ our behaviours into the correct way.

Autonomous decision making has yielded considerable costs to society’s collective sense of well-being as Matthew Taylor details: “we’ve made a set of decisions individually which lead aggregately to a big problem of loneliness which is one of the major drives on unhappiness”. A strange paradox has thus appeared where individual choice and subjective wants are considered an unequivocal good but are being simultaneously undermined by claims that the choices individuals have made are wrong, and subsequently that they require shaping and manipulating into the right choices. But does not an autonomous individual has the liberty to make whatever choice they desire? Instead right and wrong choices emerge and the autonomy to choose only extends as far as you are making the right choices. And that is ‘right’ as determined by current government policy.

It has been argued that more choice leads to increased anxiety; an abundance of choice muddies and confuses our thinking and we cannot be the rational individuals that autonomy demands. Yet we would benefit by fixing our gaze on not what there is to choose from but the logic that requires us to choose. We fail in our decisions not only because we have no power over what we can choose from but because there is no longer the opportunity to question why we should choose. How can we realize autonomy when we do not have control over the decisions that determine the choices we have?

This is merely an illusion of autonomy where we are encouraged to ‘feel’ as though we are the masters of our own lives; to ‘feel’ independent. But in real terms the control and power we possess can remain limited. Worse we become convinced that we need not involve ourselves in the battle for re-envisioning autonomy but instead achieve a certain moral superiority through techniques such as mindfulness (or for the more old-fashioned: drugs and alcohol) that brainwash us into believing we have freed ourselves from the bind.

Next week: Is mindfulness better described as brainwashing?
*ALSO possible special film review of Black Swan*

(1) The Logic of Care (2008)

Why politics of the hap?
January 21, 2011, 12:30 pm
Filed under: Happiness | Tags:

‘To be full of hap is to make happen. A politics of the hap is about opening possibilities for being in other ways, of being perhaps. If opening up possibility causes unhappiness, then a politics of the hap will be thought of as unhappy. But it is not just that. A politics of the hap might embrace what happens, but it also works towards a world in which things can happen in alternative ways. To make hap is to make a world.’ (Ahmed 2010, p. 223)

The title of this blog is unashamedly borrowed from Sara Ahmed’s rather remarkable book The Promise of Happiness. In her book Ahmed provides one of the few critiques of the rise of the ‘happiness agenda’. We now live in an age where happiness has become a government priority. And not only that, happiness is a quantifiable, measurable entity which, we are told, is available for all to achieve.

Happiness is, more often than not, the envisioned endpoint for our actions and desires. Certain objects and ideals become recognisable pointers to direct us to our goal. Whether it is winning the X factor, trekking the Himalayas, or getting married, happiness is used to justify and validate the motives behind our actions and choices. Happiness is an unquestioned “good”. It is always good to be happy. But at the expense of what and whom? This is what the politics of the hap seeks to explore.

Happiness is perceived as a neutral term, flexible to the the subjective views of the individual. Yet the pursuit of happiness, typically considered as a way to self-actualisation, is weighted with specific expectations and demands, involving conformity to a certain set of ideals. Ahmed identifies how the idea of happiness that has evolved is a limited and restrictive one, specifically critiquing the way in which the rise and emphasis on happiness is at the exclusion of certain individuals, groups and ideas. Ahmed documents the plight of the ‘melancholic migrant’, the origins of the feminist movement and draws upon the writings of queer theory to illustrate how certain individuals who felt excluded from happiness used their unhappiness to find the freedom to ‘be’ (happy or otherwise) in alternative ways.

In considering the ways in which individuals have had to seek alternative (and often radical) routes of escape from the normative requirements of happiness it is possible to view happiness as an obligation, a duty we must fulfill; a moral imperative.

Happiness as a duty and obligation appears quite in contrast to the origins of the meaning of happy. Sara Ahmed highlights how happiness as it is currently understood and circulated has become detached from its original meaning of ‘hap’. Below is a description of the origins of the word happy:

mid-14c., “lucky,” from hap “chance, fortune” (see haphazard), sense of “very glad” first recorded late 14c. Ousted O.E. eadig (from ead “wealth, riches”) and gesælig, which has become silly.
O.E. bliðe “happy” survives as blithe. From Greek to Irish, a great majority of the European words for “happy” at first meant “lucky.” An exception is Welsh, where the word used first meant “wise.”

Source: happy. (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved January 01, 2011, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/happy

The original meaning of being happy was far more closely associated to being lucky or fortunate. Luck and fortune are not objects we can obtain. They are transitory, unpredictable and outside of our control, and sometimes even our understanding. If we insert the ‘hap’ back into happiness, we can reconfigure our understanding of happiness and allow it to take on a new form. The contingent, haphazard nature would be embraced, happiness would not be an endpoint but simply a possibility among many. It is not possible to map a clear route to happiness when happiness is whimsical, contingent and haphazard. Happiness would simply be a temporary feeling that comes and goes.

Happiness without hap (without allowing for chance and full of planning and designing) is something that we wait for. We act only to obtain objects in order to move closer to our endpoint. We are often told that we need to feel positive or adopt a ‘wrong optimism’ in order to move forward. But where are we moving to? And why should we only move forward? In a politics of hap the point of action is open to question and disagreement. How will we act and in which direction, what shape will our lives take and what possibilities can open?

The pursuit of the contemporary form of happiness is at the expense of unhappiness as a possibility. This is problematic as it neglects the fact that unhappiness does things. It can cause things to hap-pen. Unhappiness is not only being de-pressed – dulled, inactive – but unhappiness can be a response to injustice, it is a chance to go astray. It could cause as to act politically, to not wait for things to happen, for happiness to arrive, but cause us to think about what the endpoint of our actions are and on what conditions they are based.

The politics of the hap is not merely advocating a politics of misery. It is about freedom. The freedom not only to be happy. But the freedom to be happy in inappropriate ways.

Link to read more of Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness